The Sacramento Kings are on the fringe of the playoffs, chasing the Portland Trail Blazers, who currently sit just half a game ahead of them in the Western Conference standings and in the final playoff spot. The Kangz are the Kangz, but should they make a move?
First, let me be clear. DeMarcus Cousins is my spirit animal.
I love watching his antics and his incredible basketball skill. He gets kicked out of games, only to be called back, then makes the big stop that seals a win. He knocks down 3-pointers and talks all kinds of nasty to his opponents. For whatever reason, he seems to hate Meyers Leonard. He has the most technical fouls in the league over the past few seasons (by a mile). He’s right at the top of the leaderboard in that category again this year. He’s an incredible basketball talent that seems to have absolutely no control over his emotions or how he expresses them.
Now that we’ve established Cousins, you hopefully already have a picture of the Kings’ problem. Their best player is an absolute beast and one of the very few centers in the league that can dominate any game he’s in.
They also added a new coach this season, a guy that pretty much everyone evaluates as a great coach. Dave Joerger forced his way out of Memphis after last season and landed himself in the shadow of Vivek Ranadivé. That’s a bold move. Despite some struggles, he has this team fighting on the fringes of the playoffs.
So we’ve got a star player and a good, presumably above-average coach. Next, what’s up with the supporting cast?
Primarily, the cast around Cousins is comprised of Matt Barnes, Darren Collison, Kosta Koufos, Rudy Gay, Garrett Temple, and Arron Afflalo. They also have Ty Lawson and a whole group of young players.
Gay has been toeing the line between contributor and irrelevant for quite a while, managing to stay on the side of contributor far longer than it seemed was possible before he was moved to Sacramento. Barnes followed Joerger from Memphis and has managed to mostly stay out of trouble. He’s had a bad wrap, a fair amount of it deserved, for years. We all would have liked to be there when he made a road trip to visit his friend Derek Fisher.
There’s some head scratching to be done with other pieces on this roster. Malachi Richardson and Skal Labisierre are rookies with some upside potential. Richardson got some run at the end of December, but hasn’t returned to the court since.
Two concerning players on their roster are Omri Casspi and Willie Cauley-Stein. Casspi has picked up all kinds of DNPs and inactives this season. He played against the Detroit Pistons this week after missing the three previous games as DNP-CDs. Cauley-Stein is riding his own three-game DNP streak. Cauley-Stein hasn’t seemed to mesh with Joerger’s preferences this season, averaging nearly 10 minutes less per game than his rookie season.
With all of these pieces in play, the Kings need to decide if they want to push for the playoffs or sit it out yet again. If they miss the playoffs, they’ll have a better shot of keeping their protected first-round draft pick. The better they do, the more likely that pick will be transferred to the Chicago Bulls. They’re almost out of the woods with that pick, it’s about to turn into a second-rounder.
It would be fair to say that, like the Bulls, Sacramento should be focusing on either competing or rebuilding altogether. There’s a bit of a trick to that. Under Ranadivé, the Sacramento front office hasn’t exactly done a great job. I’d stop short of calling them the Brooklyn Nets of the West, but they also don’t seem to really have a solid, committed plan in place.
They also already have a bunch of young players who will likely get better and can be built around. Of course, they could also be traded for players who can contribute right now. There’s a lot going on with this team and they could go either way with it. I think a lot of Kings fans would probably prefer some stability and the opportunity to watch a team with some youth grow into their potential. It might work out for them, too. A report just published indicates that Sacramento is on the verge of locking up Cousins on a mega-deal, the new designated player exception that will go into effect with the new CBA this coming summer.
So, Cousins will get paid. Will he stick around after that? It seems like a contract that eats up 35 percent of the salary cap would be hard to move, so he probably will be around for quite a while.
That generally means a rebuild is out of the question.
That leaves us with either staying the course and playing their hand, or else they should liquidate some assets in an attempt to push into the playoffs more aggressively. With their new Golden 1 Credit Union stadium, sponsorship, and street, they must be dying to get into the playoffs. As is Cousins, who has never made the trip.
Right now, it looks like a race for eighth place in the West. They might trail Portland by just half a game, but it’s another six games before you get to the next team in the standings – Joerger’s old squad in Memphis. That’s a lot of ground to make up with half a season to play and there doesn’t seem to be much reason to think they can cover that much ground or that the Grizzlies will regress enough for the Kings to catch them.
Sacramento has been playing .500 ball over their past 10 games. Not making any waves one direction or another, just lingering on the cusp of the playoffs. The good news is that the Trail Blazers are .500 over the same span, meaning they haven’t gained or lost ground. Everything is in stasis.
If they were to shake it up, Cauley-Stein or Casspi might be among the pieces that they could most easily use to leverage a return that could impact their fortunes. The reasoning is obvious – Casspi and Cauley-Stein are both players that have intriguing upside and skills that a contender might be interested in acquiring.
Players like Taj Gibson, Tyson Chandler, or one of the role players in Oklahoma City could be an option if the return is right.
Sacramento should probably keep their pieces and wait for more development in their young players. Labisierre, Richardson and Cauley-Stein certainly will have more value, much more, further into their careers than they do now. Plus, if they lock up Cousins on the new designated player deal, he’s going to be under contract until 2022-23. The only caveat to keeping things in place, for now, is that Joerger is probably going to need to utilize the pieces he has at his disposal.